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Why I changed my mind about porn

A few years ago, I argued against the idea that porn was hijacking our sexuality. Now, as a women's centre tries to ban my opponent, I wonder - are they scared that if people listen to Gail Dines, their minds might be changed too?

“Isn’t Sarah Ditum the feminist who hates Gail Dines?”

I am Sarah Ditum the feminist. I do not hate Gail Dines, so I was a little taken aback to see this statement on a comment thread. I knew where it had come from, however: four years ago, Dines and I took part in a debate titled “Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality?” Dines, a veteran anti-porn feminist, argued for yes, and I put the case for no. In the end, I got the impression that we’d both slightly wrong-footed each other: I didn’t use the insinuations of sexlessness and prudery she’d anticipated, and her argument contained all the economic and ethical subtlety I’d foolishly assumed it would lack. The debate dragged out for over a year, then collapsed unsatisfyingly, and I wrote a grumpy blogpost about it which led lots of people (most of them, it has to be said, men) to declare me the winner.

I didn’t feel exactly like a winner, however. I knew that there were parts of the argument I’d fudged, especially (and shamefully) around the racism and sexism that are embedded in the grammar of pornography. I began to suspect that it was futile to criticise Dines’ use of cohort studies to demonstrate connections between porn use and misogynist attitudes – repeating over and over that there is no control group of men not exposed to the insistent chauvinism of pornography is, ultimately, not very convincing or reassuring. Though it seemed callow to admit it, I’d seen things in my research that shocked and upset me – real penetration of real women causing real pain. And there was one more thing, which happened more gradually: I heard from friends about the boyfriend who wanted to choke them, or the one who slapped them about in bed, or pressured them to do anal, or wanted to film it all. The pornographic vocabulary of sex as the violent debasement of the female body had seeped out from screens and into the lives of the women I knew.

Despite the official title of the debate, I’d been addressing a slightly different question all along: essentially, I was asking “Why should we be able to censor anything?” Dines had a different question too. Hers, paraphrased, was probably something like this: “Why should the pornographers be able to repackage and retail sexuality as violence?” Her answer is that they should not be able to, and her solution doesn’t involve censorship at all: as she explains in her documentary Pornland, it’s one of public education and grassroots resistance to the porn industry, enabling individuals to discover “a sexuality… that is life-loving, life-affirming, and that we ourselves authored, not the pornographers”. It is irrelevant here whether or not you find that hopeful prospectus plausible (and I do: if humans have any power at all, it is surely the power to shape our own culture). What matters is that it is a politics of invention, not repression.

In fact, rather than advocating for censorship, Dines has become the victim of it. On 21 February, a screening of Pornland organised by the group Decoding Porn should have taken place at the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas, Austin. It never happened, because the Community Center cancelled the booking on the now numbingly familiar yet nonetheless depressing grounds that it would violate a “safe space.” In a statement, the venue explained: “we had some folks here in the Austin community say they were deeply uncomfortable with Dines’ work. Our staff had not been aware of Dines’ history of anti-trans and anti-sex worker rhetoric, and we were grateful to be educated.” And gallingly, my part of the debate with Dines was used by the Center to support its decision. I had thought for a long time about whether to ask for it to be unpublished, and decided that the embarrassment of having my mistakes on show was better than the dishonesty of redacting. I hadn’t considered that by not censoring myself, I might give occasion to someone else’s silencing.

Dines firmly rejects the Center’s claims: “I am critical of the johns,  the pimps and the porn producers and distributors, but not the women who end up in the industry through poverty, racism, violence and trafficking,” she says. “It is like calling Marx capitalist-phobic and refusing to engage with his arguments about the nature of economic exploitation. Also, I have never ever said anything that could be considered hateful of trans people… I am president of Stop Porn Culture and we welcome anyone who has a feminist anti-porn position.” Nevertheless, the smear had done its job: Austin had lost its opportunity to watch Pornland and respond to the arguments on their merits. If the person staking a position is deemed unspeakable, no answer is required. The safe space of the Center must be purged of dissent; meanwhile, none of its employees seemed to wonder whether an industry in which women are called “bitches” and “sluts” and ritually pummelled for men’s entertainment can be any kind of “safe space”.

There’s a tendency for the liberal left – particularly men of the liberal left – to see the shutting down of radical feminist speakers as a punishment of deliciously Dantean aptness. Meanie feminists tried to take away the porn, and now the meanie feminists have been played at their own game and beaten. But feminists have rarely demanded that the pornographic material they criticise be banned. No More Page 3 asked The Sun’s editor to reconsider an antiquated, embarrassing part of the newspaper. Lose the Lads’ Mags suggested that, maybe, boob-baring models were not the thing to have smiling down from supermarket shelves. Had Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon’s 1988 Porn Ordinance been adopted, pornography would have been redefined as sex discrimination and women who could demonstrate that they had been harmed by it would have been able to sue the makers for damages. All this is very different to the claim that a feminist critique of pornography should not be shown in a women’s centre because some folks have alleged that the maker has said some things not even contained in the film.

Even when it came to destructive direct action, anti-porn feminists could be scrupulous about preserving their opponents’ “speech”. In 1980, artist Nikki Craft destroyed a set of photos called The Incredible Case of the Stack O' Wheat Murders in the University of California Santa Cruz Special Collections Library. These sepiatone pictures all featured a naked woman, posed as though murdered, in the middle of a staged crime scene. Next to each beautiful corpse was set a stack of whole wheat pancakes, like the signature of a whimsical serial killer; for blood, the photographer substituted graphic pools of chocolate syrup. And each set came with a packet of pancake mix and a can of chocolate syrup – the supposedly witty implication being that the purchaser now has the materials to create his (of course his) own crime scene. Just add murdered woman. Craft brilliantly turned this violence back on the prints, tearing them up and dousing them with the syrup. She also, at her own expense, purchased a replacement set for the library. The protest was made, and nothing was lost.

The actions of Craft, Dworkin, Mackinnon and Dines are defined by their urgency. Anti-porn feminism recognises a link between the propaganda of sexual violence and its practice, and stopping porn is understood to be essential in ending the rapes, killings and torture that men practice against women. These campaigners believe that lives are at stake – and even so, they are somehow less censorious, more open to dialogue, more creative than those who now police the “safe spaces.”  In these spaces, everyone must be warmly welcomed and intellectually unchallenged, except of course for feminists speaking against male violence. One wonders exactly why Pornland was such an intimidating prospect for supporters of the sex industry in Austin. Perhaps it is a perverse testament to Dines: maybe her opponents know that, if viewers approach with a readiness to debate in good faith, they might, like me, end up changing their minds.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt